Own Your Story & Aim to Connect
A very funny comedy sketch show appeared on television in the UK during the late 1990’s called The Fast Show. The programme featured a large number of unforgettable characters. Amongst the most memorable were Ralph and Ted. Lord Ralph Mayhew is a well-spoken country squire and Ted is one of his estate workers. The sketches show Ralph trying but failing repeatedly to establish an intimate relationship with Ted who in return finds his employer’s advances extremely embarrassing and awkward to say the least. The combination of Ralphs inept, but well-meaning attempts to engage Ted in conversation and the awkwardness Ted clearly feels in having to talk to his employer creates moments of timeless comedy but the sketches are also extremely painful to watch. Anybody who has ever struggled to start and maintain a conversation will identify with Ralph and Ted.
Do you, for example, worry about how to start conversations and keep them going? Do you worry all the time that you won’t get beyond the other person’s response after you’ve cheerfully said; ‘Hey! How it’s going?’ Do you worry about small talk secretly dreading the superficial, frivolousness of it all? Well, if so then I’m sure you’ll find this blog of interest – so, if you’re ready, let’s read on.
Knowing Me, Knowing You
It’s often said that one of the key strategies in having a successful conversation is to let the other person know you’re genuinely interested in them, that you really do like them and that you really do enjoy being in their company. And one of the easiest ways of doing this is to ask the other person lots of open questions – questions designed to get the other person to talk freely about themselves, their experiences, interests, ideas, opinions, and so on. And as they do so you will of course respond with positive enthusiasm – you’ll raise your eyebrows, smile and nod gracefully at key moments. And when you’re not asking questions you’ll be summarising and reflecting-back in your own words what the other person has been saying to show them you really have been listening – you get the picture.
Putting the other person first and making them feel special in this way is an excellent attitude to have in general and is great for building rapport – it can also lead to some really great exchanges but it’s not the only way to initiate, build and maintain great conversations. Also, although the other person may feel relaxed and safe in your company as you give them your full attention they may also come away from the exchange feeling that, although they enjoyed the encounter they are none the wiser as to who you are – that they know nothing about you. They’ll feel this because the whole of the conversation was about them and as a result they’ve learned nothing about you!
The Comfort of Questioning
It goes without saying that one of the reasons you may ask lots of questions in this way is because your scared, not only of talking about yourself but of making small talk. You may find small talk cringingly difficult to do not least of all because you don’t know what to say or how to take the conversation to a more meaningful level – and so you tell yourself it’s best to just ask questions.
Asking questions also ensures you don’t have to talk about yourself and one of the reasons why you don’t want to talk about yourself is because you don’t believe you have anything interesting to say and the reason why you don’t believe you have anything interesting to say is because you think you’re not a particularly likeable or interesting person – which of course is not true, but you don’t know that.
Don’t get me wrong, asking questions is good – active listening is great, but these strategies and techniques alone are unlikely to result in lasting and meaningful conversations and the reason for this lies in the importance of connection.
You see, in order to create and build great conversations we need, not only to connect with the other person but to enable the other person to connect with us and one of the best ways of doing this is by sharing the conversation with them. Both parties, in other words need to be talking and sharing information. We need to share our information with the other person – we need therefore to be prepared to talk about ourselves including, for example, what interests us and we to do this in a fun, informative and enjoyable way. ‘Hang on a minute …’ I hear you say ‘That’s the whole point. I’m not an interesting guy am I. I’m boring. I’ve got nothing of value to share with others. My mind goes blank when I think of talking about myself that’s why I always ask lots of questions. Besides, if I talk about myself won’t others will think me egoistical and self-centred? Its rude and self-indulgent to talk about myself isn’t it?’
Okay, I hear what you’re saying but I’m sorry, I have to disagree. You’re not boring! I can say this with great confidence because I happen to believe nobody is boring. People may think and believe they’re boring but just because someone might think their boring doesn’t make it true!
So, if you really do want to be socially confident – if you really would like to be a great conversationalist, then you are going to have to eradicate the belief that you are boring. You need to work on building the belief that you really are an interesting guy who is fun to be with – that you have great ideas, opinions and attitudes others will find intriguing – that you’ve had fascinating experiences others will want to know about! Building these empowering beliefs will make it easier for you to talk about yourself and to engage in the kind of meaningful conversations both parties will enjoy.
Now, I’m not suggesting you just talk about yourself all the time because you’re right – nobody likes a self-centred egotist. As I have said, you need to share the content of the conversation with the other person – you need to have an equal say in how the conversation goes. In order to do this you need to change the story you’ve been telling yourself all these years about the ‘fact’ that you’re a boring person nobody like’s. A statement such as ‘I’m boring’ remember is not a fact – it’s just an opinion, an opinion you may hold about yourself. You’re in the habit of telling yourself stories about how dull and uninteresting you are but these stories are just that – they’re stories and more specifically these stories are fundamentally fictitious. You’ve in the habit of telling yourself stories and these stories are simply not true – in fact they’re complete fiction.
Own Your Story
The problem is you’ve been telling yourself stories like this for such a long time you’ve ended up believing them, but just because you believe these stories doesn’t make them true, just because you’ve been telling yourself these stories for a long time doesn’t make them true either.
Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that a little bit of small-talk isn’t such a bad thing – it gets the conversation going for a start but if you stay at the level of small-talk then it’s unlikely that the conversation will move to the level that would make the exchange truly memorable for you and the person you’re conversing with. In order to move beyond small-talk you need to take some ownership of the conversation, you’ve got to take some responsibility for leading the conversation and taking it in a direction which moves it beyond the superficiality of small-talk.
The problem is, those who lack social confidence tend to adopt a rather passive position – they allow the other person to run the show. Hence them asking lots of questions – we ask questions to let the other person be centre stage. The other person ends up bossing the conversation and you let them do so by gently nodding, smiling and agreeing. In order to get beyond the superficiality of small-talk YOU need to take some control, you need to step up and take some responsibility in leading the conversation in a way that interests you.
‘That sounds great …’ I hear you say, ‘but how am I supposed to do that!’
I understand your concern and yes, the thought of leading a conversation can be scary. In fact, its takes real courage and determination to step up to the mark in this way. You see – the thing is, hiding behind questions leaves you feeling safe – you’re not talking about yourself after all, you’re not revealing anything about yourself to the other person but the problem is your playing safe and as Marianne Williamson famously said, you playing safe; ‘… does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that people won’t feel insecure around you.’
Playing small does nothing to boast your confidence – in order for you to boost your confidence you need to step up and take conversations by the scruff of the neck which by implication means stepping outside the comfort of asking questions, it means sharing information about yourself which does of course feel a bit scary – you’re apt to ask yourself some questions too, questions such as; ‘Who am I to think I could start a great conversation and keep it going? And even if I could do that and get more involved what will others think of me? What if they think I’m boring and self-centred!’ but as we have seen, there’s no value in adopting a negative, self-deprecating stance such as this.
‘What kind of a stance would be more helpful and beneficial then?’ I hear you say. Well first-of-all, let’s get beyond the illusion that your boring and uninteresting because you’re not. To help you understand this I want you to make 5 statements about yourself that relate to topics of personal interest, ability or competence. For example, I was working with a client recently who thought he was really boring and that he had nothing interesting to say about himself. However on doing the doing the above exercise he came up with the following 5 statements:
1. I am musical – I play the guitar really well. Mainly rock.
2. I am fascinated by languages and can speak reasonably good Spanish but would like improve upon this.
3. I am interested in travelling – I would like to visit Central and South America to practise my Spanish and to find out more about the culture of this part of the world.
4. I am good at soccer and enjoy sport in general – I also enjoy working out in the gym.
5. I am fascinated by cinema and love classic, avant-garde films.
All the above statements were true. Knowing this – how could he possibly see himself as boring? It’s true to say that none of the above are particularly original or all that extraordinary but that’s the whole point – you don’t have to be the most exciting guy in the whole world to be of genuine interest to others. You just need to know your value as a human being and to know that you are valuable!
In addition to the above get into the habit of picking up on information on a daily basis that could be of use to you in a conversation. This could include aspects of your own experience, or it could be something of universal interest. For example, on the day I wrote this blog; a 16-year old girl got life in prison for the manslaughter of a child, Malcolm Young, one of the founding members of rock band AC/DC died, Prince Harry got engaged and a volcano erupted in Bali (there’s always something to talk about!)
Anyway, let’s come back to you – get in the habit of bringing to mind what interests you, what you’re passionate about. Most people agree that enthusiasm is an attractive quality. Think of someone you might have seen on TV banging on about something they felt really passionate about, something that really excited them – you felt their energy right? You were struck by how charismatic they were. Well you have this energy too – it’s this energy that will not only move you but will move others.
Aim to Connect
I referred earlier to the importance of rapport – the graceful dance of communication that flows between two people when those two people are truly connected. Yes, we can certainly create rapport through paying full attention to the person facing us, but we can also create rapport, really great rapport through connecting to the other person and one of the best ways of connecting is through sharing our experience with them. You see, although it’s nice to listen attentively to others just listening or asking questions is unlikely to build a true and lasting connection because the flow of the conversation is one way. The person you’re talking too may be giving you a lot of energy but you won’t necessarily be giving any back due to your lack of engagement. By sharing your experience with others, by showing people who you are you significantly increase the changes of not only connecting but of making an impact on that other person.
Asking questions is great – you should ask questions, you should take an interest in the person standing opposite you but you also need to share what you know, you need to give something of yourself to the other person – give them something to play with, to interact with, to respond to otherwise the conversation will be one-dimensional.
Okay, so you’re ready to share – you agree you’ve got content to talk about but ‘how do I do it?’ I hear you say. Remember what I was saying earlier about passion, enthusiasm and energy. You see, it’s not just about sharing – you need to share with passion, enthusiasm and energy. I’m not saying you have to jump up and down waving your arms around like some demented half-wit but think about – if you mumbled; ‘I am musical, I play the guitar’ while shuffling about looking at the floor you’re unlikely to create much of an impression. But if you declared with some energy; ‘I love music and I play the guitar. Mainly rock – hey, did you hear about that dude in AC/DC – he died today. I was quite shocked. They’re not one of my favourite bands but they certainly knew how to rock! What about you. Do you like music? … Oh, you like classical music mainly. That’s really cool because I have just taken up flamenco. It’s difficult and a real challenge but I’m enjoying it. I’m thinking of travelling around central and south America after I’ve graduated and it would be great to check out the traditional music there. How about you – have you travelled much?
This is how you magnetise your audience even if your audience is just one person – through sharing your enthusiasm with others. And here’s the thing – don’t wait until someone asks you a question before you get involved in the conversation. Be bold – make a statement and see where it takes you.
Shy individuals not only worry about starting conversations – they worry about their ability to keep the conversation going. One of their biggest concerns is that the other person won’t find what they have to say interesting and so when the opportunity to engage in a conversation arises they shy away, they try to avoid the situation as much as they can. Of course, one of the major problems a shy person faces is they worry their mind will go blank and they won’t think of anything to say and of course if you’re experiencing a great deal of stress and anxiety then that is exactly what will happen- your mind will go blank! This is because it’s really hard to think straight when you’re really scared – that anxious mind of yours is far more concerned in trying to get you out of the situation as quickly as possible. Its looking for an escape route not a bunch of interesting statements to say about yourself. However, if you genuinely believed in your ability to start and maintain interesting conversations, if you had genuine rock-solid confidence then you wouldn’t be scared or anxious of people and social situations and your mind wouldn’t go blank.
You may of course be scared of people and social situations but remember at all times that one of the best ways of developing confidence and self-belief is to take bold action and confront your fears. The worse thing you can do is to avoid what scares you as avoidance and seeking safety just makes matters worse. The fact of the matter is – every time we challenge ourselves, every time we try something new we will experience fear. I’m sorry, I wish it didn’t have to be this way but I’m afraid that’s the bottom line – in order to overcome our fears we have to confront what scares us. The good news is – having confronted our deepest, darkest fears we are more than likely to come to the conclusion that what we thought was scary wasn’t half as scary as we thought it was. And in time, due to us testing the basis of our fears we will come to the conclusion that we are not in danger and eventually our fear diminishes. So, go on, challenge yourself – don’t just ask questions the next time you’re having a chat with someone. Get involved in the conversation – you may be surprised how much more enjoyable it is when you share and connect with others.
James Woodworth ATPC